By Jennifer LeClaire / CIO Today. Updated January 29, 2009.
Google on Wednesday launched its latest innovation -- one that sheds new light on a controversial problem: Net neutrality.
Called Measurement Lab, the tool seeks to reveal whether the root cause of a flaky Internet connection is your broadband Internet service provider, the application, your PC, or something else. Google partnered with academic researchers to develop a solution.
Google, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, and academic researchers launched M-Lab, an open platform that researchers can use to deploy Internet measurement tools.
Will M-Lab Bust the Bottleneck?
Researchers are already developing tools that allow users to measure the speed of their connection, run diagnostics, and attempt to discern if their ISP is blocking or throttling particular applications, according to Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf and Principal Engineer Stephen Stuart. Cerf is one of the architects of the Internet.
So how is M-Lab different? As Google describes it, existing tools generate and send some data back and forth between the user's computer and a server elsewhere on the Internet. Unfortunately, Cert and Stuart said, researchers lack widely distributed servers with ample connectivity, which poses a barrier to the accuracy and scalability of these tools. Researchers also have trouble sharing data with one another. M-Lab sets out to address these problems.
"Over the course of early 2009, Google will provide researchers with 36 servers in 12 locations in the U.S. and Europe. All data collected via M-Lab will be made publicly available for other researchers to build on," Cert and Stuart wrote in the Google blog.
Rekindling a Controversy
Google's M-Lab rolls out just more than a week after the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation into Comcast's network-management practices. The timing of these events may rekindle the controversy around Net neutrality, which aims for equality among broadband users with no restrictions on content, sites, platforms or equipment.
"M-Lab is going to raise that whole specter again of Net neutrality at a time when Internet services for most people are a critical service. It's not just the Internet service that's there for information and entertainment anymore," said Michael Gartenberg, an independent technology analyst "Google is looking to intercede through software on this issue of what the ISPs are dong with the power that they have."
As with most of the innovations Google launches, M-Lab is still in the early stages of development. Right now, there are three tools available to help users diagnose common problems that might hinder broadband speed. The tools can also determine whether BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled by ISPs. By running these tools, Cert and Stuart said, users will get information about their connection and provide researchers with valuable aggregate data.
"At Google, we care deeply about sustaining the Internet as an open platform for consumer choice and innovation. No matter your views on Net neutrality and ISP network-management practices, everyone can agree that Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they're getting when they sign up for broadband, and good data is the bedrock of sound policy," Cert and Stuart said. "Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and, by advancing network research in this area, M-Lab aims to help sustain a healthy, innovative Internet."